Dreaming in the field

by | Feb 17, 2022 | The Dream Project | 1 comment

For years I had recurring dreams that I would not talk about. This pattern began in childhood. When I was 5 years old, I saw a burglar running out of my great-grand mother’s house and growing up I regularly dreamt of burglars entering my house. 

Twenty years later, while doing field research in Rwanda for my PhD in transitional justice, I had recurring dreams of bones from buried corpses emerging from the ground. The nightmare was prompted by a Gacaca court trial transcript that I was working on at the time. The Gacaca court emerged in the wake of the Rwandan genocide and was developed from the country’s existing tradition of communal justice. I had been employed by an international human rights NGO based in Kigali. My job was to consolidate the analysis of 500 genocide trials monitored by my Rwandan colleagues. In one of these trials, neither of the perpetrators could agree nor fully remember how they killed their victim during the 1994 genocide. More than a decade after their crime, they both had different recollections of the events. They could not settle on the specific sequence of events leading to the murder. They admitted responsibility but their confession—which would have reduced their sentence—was refused and they were condemned to life imprisonment. 

In my dream, the way the skeletons resurfaced resonated strongly with the perpetrator’s testimony about the events of the crime. The dream also contained an abstract account of my struggle to grapple with the case: I was haunted by the gap between the theories of transitional justice I had learned in graduate school and the fragmented narratives that emerged in its actual practice.

Scholars in the field of transitional justice frequently claim that the search for truth, justice, and accountability contribute to important societal goals in post-conflict zones, such as reconciliation, strengthening of the rule of law, and democracy (as articulated by Hayner, Orentlichter, and Teitel). The Gacaca system I was working within is based on these very premises. However, during this trial, and in many other cases, the narratives that emerged were not polished, straightforward accounts that easily served these lofty goals. I had studied the theories of transitional justice for five years, but in my work in the field I was confronted with much more incoherent notions of truth, justice, and accountability. Retrospectively, I understood that my recurring dream reflected this difficult struggle.

I did not vocalize these dreams for years. One line in my dissertation mentions how fieldwork affected my sleeping patterns and induced nightmares. It caught the attention of a senior colleague, Prof Raminder Kaur, that helped me prepare for my defence. From then on, the nightmares kept coming up in conversations. Seeking a change from the dry and technical narratives that emerge from interviews with professionals in the field, I began experimenting with ways to include dreams in my scholarly work.

During my last field trip in Burundi, I kept a dream dairy. I was in the region primarily to research transitional justice professionals involved in the Burundian Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Every morning during the fieldwork, I reached out to the diary and wrote down what I remembered from my sleep. I also recorded any research-related dreams that occurred prior to and after my stint in the field. Some days, I could not remember any dreams. The majority of the dreams were related to personal matters that have no direct relation to the research. Some of the dreams captured general work-related stress, such as missing deadlines. Other dreams engaged the fear of missing something during fieldwork: not getting the interview I am after, or not finding the room of a workshop I aimed to attend. Out of all these dreams, three dreams stand out as attesting to my anxieties about the underlying the security situation in Burundi. Here is a transcription from the dream dairy:

12 May 2018 [Two weeks prior to departure]

While jogging, I am running away from a child. I was with someone else. It might have been one of my sisters, but I am not sure. I was certainly the person in charge of deciding where to go, when to crawl in the mud, when to sprint down a hill to not be seen and escape from the child. I am not sure where it was, but it feels like it was in Burundi. I have a feeling of guilt for running away from someone who seems vulnerable, unthreatening. But the fear was overwhelming, and I run away despite the feeling of guilt.

 29 June 2018 [Last week in the field]

A police man is pointing his gun at the car I am sitting in.

15 July 2018 [Home from the field]

I am sitting in a fancy restaurant. It looks like Jardin Gourmand or the Ubuntu hotel [Two places of the city frequented by expatriate workers]. White people are eating fancy food. While people are having fun surrounded by trees, they are armed men everywhere. A fat man with a red tie is trying to seek refuge in the DRC embassy that is in the same square. He managed to get in without being trapped. More armed people arrive. They catch him from the balcony. They shoot at him. Guns make a small noise and blue lights like in a video game. In the dream, I wake up in the morning and go and take pictures. We have to be repatriated. Everyone is getting ready. I lost my camera. I look for my camera. The others are looking for me. I need to leave the camera behind.

The places that appear in the dream are completely dislocated. While I also take part in the expatriate and elite lifestyle Bujumbura has to offer, I always feel uncomfortable within this social environment that is marked by blindness towards the paradoxes of inequality between aid workers, peace-builders, and alleged beneficiaries. In the last dream, the various places have no apparent relation to each other. I never been in a situation in which I needed to consider emergency repatriation, even though I repeatedly have to write down the steps of the process for insurance purposes. However, the emotional significance of these dreams requires little added information for people familiar with the political context of Burundi. In different ways, each of these dreams depicts my anxiety about the increased levels of insecurity in the region since my last field trip in 2014. In turn, the three dreams predict, represent, and reflect the increased presence of armed forces and weapons in public space. Jogging had been an important part of stress-management during my long periods of fieldwork, but group jogging was banned in Burundi in 2014. In the dozen times I went jogging during my last fieldwork trip, I ran into armed forces guarding jogging politicians. The day prior the second dream I was intimidated by armed military men for taking pictures in the street. The red tie featured in the dream comes directly from a man I saw who was followed by dozens of armed military men in a rural part of Burundi.

Men with Red Ties, Burundi, July 2018, Photo by Astrid Jamar
Glimpse of Armed Military on the side of the street, Burundi, July 2018. Photo by Astrid Jamar

I do not remember all my dreams. The mundane ones are quickly forgotten. The difficult ones stay. Some of my dreams contain very personal information that I have no intention to share. But my experiment with the dream dairy has convinced me to pursue more research on the dream-life of violence and peace-building work. Indeed, all the existing critiques of the field are present in these dreams: the risks of re-traumatization, the labour of memory and the post-conflict economy expected from participants, and the re-framing of testimonies for institutional purposes.

The personal, emotional, and fluid texture of dreams is what makes them compelling and unchartered research territory within the field of peace and conflict studies. Paying attention to my dreams forced me to address personal reactions that I usually pushed to the side. From the perspective of research on violence and peace, these nighttime visions reveal the underside of the manifest accounts of my profession. They serve as an ideal source to capture the non-linear, multi-layered, complex, legacies of violence and conflict. 

Astrid Jamar is a Lecturer in Development at Development Policy & Practice at The Open University. She works on the professionalisation of transitional justice from anthropological, postcolonial and feminist perspectives, with a regional focus on the African Great Lakes region. The 2018 fieldwork in Burundi was supported by the Political Settlements Research Programme (PSRP), and funded by UK Aid from the UK Department for International Development (DFID) as well as the Research Support Fund of the School of Law, University of Edinburgh. The information and views set out in this publication are those of the author.

“Dreaming in the Field” © December 2019